The Insanity of Regulation

Near the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson found himself in a tight spot financially. He had spent the previous 60 years or so in the public service as President, Vice-President, Governor, Ambassador, Regent of the University of Virginia, etc. These various services to his country and state kept him, so he claimed, from properly attending to his own affairs. As a result, he ended up deep in debt.

His solution was to sell some of his property to pay off his creditors. However, the land was very valuable and the market was very depressed, so he feared that there would be nobody willing to pay full price. As an alternative to traditional sale, he proposed a lottery. By putting up the property as the prize of a lottery, he believed that he stood a better chance of receiving full value for the land. The only problem was the the Commonwealth of Virginia regulates all lotteries, so Jefferson would need special dispensation from the legislature. So he made an appeal, recounting all of his services to state and country and waxing philosophical about the moral implications of gambling.

Jefferson starts this appeal by acknowledging that “chance” is merely the name given to causes that we do not or cannot know. “If we know the cause [of a thing], we do not call it chance; but if we do not know it, we say it was produced by chance.” So every human endeavor includes some element of chance. He calls the farmer “the greatest of all gamblers” because the farmer risks his rent, his seeds, and his labor on a crop that may fail because of things beyond his control. And because all human action is a gamble to some extent, gambling cannot be immoral per se. So far, so good.

But then Jefferson holds in opposition those games of chance that are not productive in the way that insurance or capital investment are. (I briefly observe that games of chance are productive in the form of entertainment, which can be hard to measure but clearly has value.) He writes of “cards, dice, billiards, &c.” as games “which produce nothing, and endanger the well-being of the individuals engaged in them.” And he lauds the state’s suppression of these games for the sake of those who would be injured by playing and losing. Here, I think, Jefferson busts.

Jefferson acknowledges that there is a natural right to gamble. This, I take it, is based on two considerations: first, as discussed above, gambling is not immoral per se, but is merely another term for the risks that all of us take in each of our daily actions; and second, that the natural right to property necessarily includes the right to dispose of it by sale, gift, or game of chance. (A previous post on this blog discusses the curious relationship between Jefferson’s and Locke’s notions of the natural right to property.) So once gambling is acknowledged as a natural right, how can its prohibition be justified?

The justification is by way of analogy. The analogy drawn by Jefferson is between degenerate gambling and “insanity, infancy, imbecility, &c.” If a gambling addiction is a sort of madness, then the state is right to prohibit gambling for the protection of the addicts. But even if we agree that a gambling addiction is akin to a mental handicap – which is at least debatable – the analogy is somewhat unfair. Why should all table games be banned for the protection of the fraction of the population that suffers from a gambling addiction? If we do not allow children or the mentally ill to drive cars by virtue of their infancy or insanity, that does not mean that we would authorize the state to ban cars outright. And if cars are too modern a concept, then consider an example of what children and the insane could not do in Jefferson’s day: neither group was capable of entering into legally binding contracts. Yet Jefferson would not have advocated the notion that the enforcement of all contracts should be banned for the sake of the children and the insane. Rather, the intervention of the state should be limited to protecting the narrow subset of individuals while interfering as little as possible with the rights of everybody else.


Beer of the week: Wieselburger Gold – Jefferson may have found himself short on gold, but who isn’t? If the name “Gold” is used to describe the color this Austrian beer, the name is not very apt. This brew is much more pale than anything that I would call gold. If the name refers to the quality of the beer, they still come up a bit short; this is a bronze medal beer, silver at best. What little head there is dissipates quickly, and there is hardly an aroma to speak of. However, the flavor is not without its charms. There is a bit of malt sweetness up front, and a floral, hoppy finish that leaves the mouth feeling dry, always encouraging the next sip.

Reading for the week: Thoughts on Lotteries by Thomas Jefferson – There is more to dislike about this appeal than the weak analogy between gamblers and the insane. Notably, Jefferson discusses his own political career at length and argues that he should be entitled to exceptional treatment by the legislature on those grounds.

Question for the week: Is there a formula for what percent of the population is impacted before rightful actions should be banned?